Thursday, 17 February 2011

book review: Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch is published by Gollancz in the UK and Del Ray in the USA (who have bizarrely re-titled it Midnight Riot). I read the UK hardback version, with its utterly glorious cover, complete with luscious London map made of words and a cheeky blood stain.

Peter Grant is a probationary constable faced with spending the rest of his career in the Case Progression Unit to do the paperwork so the ‘real coppers don’t have to’. Fortunately for him, whilst standing watch at the site of a gruesome murder in London’s Covent Garden, he takes a statement from the only witness available; the ghost of Nicholas Wallpenny.

From that moment on Peter’s eyes are open to a brand new world. He joins Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last remaining wizard in England, to become his apprentice and Detective Constable. Together they form a very special unit of the London Metropolitan Police Service, aka ‘the Filth’, that’s kept firmly under wraps. Peter moves into the Folly, Nightingale’s mostly empty mansion (‘mostly’ because there’s a Molly slithering around in there somewhere) to begin his training.

He’s soon learning the basic steps of magic alongside investigating the freakishly similar murders that keep cropping up around the city. Although, it soon becomes apparent that the murderers are as much a victim of the wave of anger and despair that warps their features and drives them, as the bodies they leave strewn all over London.

On top of all that, there are the vampires and the warring god and goddess of the Thames to contend with, not to mention the distractions that the luscious personification of a river, Beverly Brook, and the incredibly perky WPC Lesley May provide Peter with.

This is probably best described as Urban Fantasy, being city-based and about the supernatural, but this particular novel is more centred on police, ghosts and folklore. The policing aspects of it in particular make Rivers of London a credible thriller as well as an Urban Fantasy, especially due to the level of detail involved.

As I possess a peculiarly specific taste in Urban Fantasy (Jim Butcher), which I mentioned in an earlier post, on the surface this novel ticks all the right boxes for me: set in a city, preferably Chicago or London: TICK. The police are involved in investigating supernatural crimes: TICK. And keeping them quiet from the public: TICK. Magic is needed to solve murders: TICK. It involves wizards: TICK. Vampires: TICK. Gods: TICK. And, bonus ticks for the unexpected yet delightful addition of Londoners turning into violent mannequins: TICK. (I feel you may need a reminder of why there's a ticking system.)

That was in theory at least. So I was, of course, delighted to discover it had all of those things it promised to deliver, and more. More because the characters are wonderful. I really got on well with the lead, Peter Grant, who was slightly whiney, but also thoroughly sympathetic, and wonderfully funny (and very ready believe in magic). Almost like Moss in the IT Crowd (who Peter firmly is, in my mind at least). Aaronovitch drip feeds enough of a back story about his character’s upbringing to enable the reader to understand the character’s motivations and worldly view, without it being a sob story.

While through the first person narrative you really came to know and love Peter (important, that), there is always the risk of the one viewpoint leaving other characters in the lurch. It would have been great to have gotten to know some of the other characters further. Beverly Brook, Lesley May and Nightingale all would have benefited from further examining, but this is only the first book of hopefully many, so there is always time for that. The snippets of characterisation you receive through the medium of Peter are enough to satiate you, whilst leaving you wanting a sequel to learn more.

Like all excruciatingly good Urban Fantasies, the city has to be as much of a character as any of the others, and Aaronovitch ensures that London ain’t no bit part. The city heaves off the page in all of her cobbled, crowded, violent glory. The author’s love of this city pours from the pages in the descriptions of the streets, landmarks, rivers (naturally), folklore and its spirit. Despite the reverence, Aaronovitch isn’t afraid to get London’s hands dirty. Whatever nasty is abusing the city is feeding from the spirit of riot and rebellion that’s been breeding in its alleyways for years.

The book has two plots running alongside each other – the main, meatier plot about randomly murderous rages overtaking innocent citizens, and the subplot about the dispute between the self-proclaimed god and goddess of the Thames. While they do neatly weave around each other, at times the subplot seemed to act only as a distraction for the lead from his main case. The two story strands did cross towards the finale, although this had a touch of convenience about it. I did, however, enjoy both of these stories equally on account of them being extremely well written.

Aaronovitch has written for Doctor Who, which always demands a creative mind, and there is certainly one at work here. The personification of lost and current London rivers feels both believable and magical through Aaronovitch’s deft hand. His debut novel is wickedly inventive and, to borrow the cover quote by Charlaine Harris, fresh and original.

The prose is often gently whimsical, but there is also a vividness to his writing. Aaronovitch’s snatches of description when Peter feels a flash of vestigia, magical resonance from a person, animal or place, is written in such a way that the reader feels, smells and sees it too.

Rivers of London is warmly humorous but never shirks from being brutally visceral when it has to be. For the first in a potential series, it’s self-contained with an ending that leaves you at once unsettled and fully satisfied. I thoroughly look forward to its sequel, Moon Over Soho.

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